Putting “how’ at the centre of climate debate

Let’s start the discussion on what to do about climate change at a different point.

Put aside what government thinks and what politics does. Just push that out of the way. What does that leave you with? Where do you go next?

Sam Mackay, the Executive Director of the Climate Ready Initiative, thinks that leaves us with one compelling question – how? How can we position Australia to thrive in a low carbon and climate resilient world? How can we enable the Australian population to help get us there?

The Climate Ready Initiative is a new social impact initiative that has been established by the Griffith University Climate Action Beacon.

Sam explains what CRI is about: “This initiative is all about preparing now for what comes after commitments, and with increasing global pressure on climate action - we can no longer afford to wait. It’s a societal ‘how’ problem – how are we going to do it?’’

Of course, reducing the vast complexity of climate action in to one simple question is not to diminish the size, range, or difficulty of the task. But it is a powerful way to cut through the volume of noise that surrounds so many aspects of the climate change debate.

And this is where CRI comes in. It’s first step was to assemble a board of high-profile Australians, who bring diverse backgrounds to the development of a strategy that will help shape the “how’’ of our national climate discussion.

It is chaired by co-founder of Impact Investing Australia Rosemary Addis AM and includes former Federal Liberal leader John Hewson AM, along with trusted leaders such as Professor Brendan Mackey, Ann Sherry AO, Helen Szoke AO, Tony McAvoy SC and Sophia Hamblin Wang. Interestingly, most of them have experience in development challenges and an understanding of the dynamics that have successfully driven multi-lateral international approaches to common problems. And that template could be a valuable tool in helping to guide CRI’s model for collaboration, investment and collective action.

“We feel we’ve convened a board that can help us do it. We feel we have the strategy and tools to do it, which is mostly drafted now. But above all, we feel there is now a real appetite across Australia to participate in strategic, coordinated and just climate action.’’

There is, Sam points out, an important difference in the focus of this approach – it is action-oriented and engages the public, but not activist.

“If we are serious about climate action and securing Australia’s position in a low carbon and climate resilient world, then we need a national platform - a market of sorts - to unlock widespread societal participation and action. In the EU and UK for example, it has been acknowledged for some time now that business, industry, community and the general public will be the ones to deliver climate action, and all manner of social and economic mechanisms have been put in place to help facilitate this. The challenge CRI is taking on is to create that space in Australia, so that we too can play our part in delivering global climate action and ensure we’re not left behind. 

This is where some of the more familiar complexity about the climate discussion starts to appear. Yet Sam is not suggesting that focusing the challenge on the ‘how question’ is simplifying the task. Far from it. What he understands after more than a decade working with governments and in government on a range of climate related policies, initiatives, and strategies, is that there really is value and power attached to looking at the “how question’’.

“Colleagues and I have fielded calls fortnightly over the past few years where partners from all aspects of society are struggling with how to go about climate action. They know that they have to act, they know there is real value in acting, in some cases they even know what they need to do, they just don’t know how to do it,’’ he says.

The certainty that goes with asking that question though is that there is no single “how’’, which highlights the need for greater collaboration and strategy.

“So there isn’t a lack of sentiment or desire in Australia, in fact it’s trending the other way. There’s just a complete absence of enablers to help overcome the ‘how’,’’ Sam says. “And if you address it in one organisation, it’ll be different in another. They are all different ‘hows’, so we need to be thinking big about how we can address them together in a more strategic way, rather than see what falls out the other side in a few years and hope for the best.’’

That’s where the hard thinking comes in and for that, CRI is building a national partnership.

“We want a partnership that is unencumbered in its economic, social and environmental interests in our country,’’ Sam says. “And because we’re serious about building collective leadership, this means we’re not necessarily looking for a [single] philanthropist or industry group. Instead we want several parties, who see the need to start working together on the ‘how’.’’

Sam’s clear commitment to ensure CRI can make progress on the issue is helped by what he sees as the increasingly valuable role universities can play.

“Universities have a unique convening power. We are honest brokers that can be trusted to bring together society to coalesce common interest on challenges like climate action. This is really significant, because once we have a clear common interest on climate action, we have a platform from which we have the opportunity to lower the transaction cost of one-off initiatives and strive towards generating collective impact,’’ he says.

The CRI is expected to formally launch in autumn 2021, when it will release its strategic plan. There have already been extensive discussions with key bodies around the country to help shape the strategy.

In the meantime, the clamour of other voices and other organisations grows louder. And that raises the issue of how to reconcile those different – and sometimes competing – interests around the table.

“No one group is responsible for climate action, it is a societal challenge. Even within single entities that have diverse functions - be they public or private - it’s often unclear who is responsible for what portion of the entity’s climate risk or opportunity,’’ he says.

“So all roads lead to partnership, because no one organisation is going to deliver climate action for their industry, no one industry can deliver it for the economy and the economy alone - albeit important – cannot deliver it for society’’.

The goal is familiar to most Australians who are interested in trying to develop climate action, but the CRI offers a new approach.

“What we all ultimately want is for Australia to be a prosperous, successful and just country in 2030, 2040 and 2050 as the world changes to address the issue of climate change,’’ Sam says. “What we don’t want is Australia to be caught flat-footed and then find itself behind the rest of the world in terms of what society values and how it functions. So, the idea of a climate ready Australia is really a commitment to enabling Australians to work together on building a better future for us all.’’

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